Monday, April 30, 2012

Waking up to Soto Zen Hierarchy

It’s as if I woke up from a dream, or some self-imposed amnesia. It’s not that I didn’t know that Soto Zen is a hierarchy, and patriarchal until just recently. [My friend and teacher Norman Fischer has been instrumental in introducing the women's lineage papers.  A noteworthy achievement.]

Clearly the ordained and lay entrusted have the only real status.  It is not a status based on actually living the dharma – although many do - but on an ordination that may have happened years ago, or upon acting as shuso for two months.  When I first came to Zen, it was clear there was a kind of elite club: the priests. A kind of caste system. At Zen Center, I am told this enactment of hierarchy is very precise – down to where the zafu is placed for certain services.

What triggered my awakening to this after all these years of my being willing to ignore this every entrenched tradition within Soto Zen?

I was given a list of how people should line up to receive the new women’s lineage documents.  And there it was: a literal expression of rank.  Priests and lay entrusted first and everyone else. One priest – a dear friend – told me that the ordained hold responsibility for our practice.  Although this responsibility is taken seriously in most cases, there are many who through questionable ethical behavior, or simple lack of involvement with a sangha, do not hold the practice for me. 

Another dear friend told me that it is simply a tradition of honoring the elders and their longevity of practice.  I would agree that it is valuable to do so, but the problem is that there are many people who have practiced just as long, or longer.  And there are people who are not ordained and who have devoted themselves to service in our sangha for years and years.  These people will never receive this kind of honor and attendant privilege.

It’s as if I woke up, and I was shocked.  How could I have given so much time, have given so much of myself?  I am very egalitarian, and I do not believe there should be a special class of people.  Everyone has his or her own role, based on the causes and conditions of her life.  There are mothers; there are those doing socially engaged Buddhism; those sitting at the bedside of the dying.   

So how do I hold this with integrity?  By being so active in my Zen community am I being complicit with a value system that is not my own? Is this an actual moral question, or can I continue giving and receiving love?  And ignoring.


  1. Can line up in front of me, Barbara!

    But seriously, this is really interesting and I just have no real sense of where to go with it. People feel so passionately. Is it a problem? Is it a part of the brilliant system of our ancestors? Is it more skillful in the release from suffering to be more egalitarian or is that more comfortable for people? Where do comfort and release from suffering help each other and where do they block each other?

    It did notice in our sangha history that trying TOO HARD to be egalitarian had a real feeling of preventing anyone from expressing themselves fully. A sense of not wanting to stick out.

    And of course lots of examples of groups too much buying into the hierachical model are out there too. Lots of examples.

    Is it a balance thing: we need some vertical and some horizontal?

    Somehow I myself stumbled into the "elite group" part of this. I certainly don't feel much different inside.

    But it's interesting you have this sense of never noticing this! Norman up in the front of the room all the time in specially colored robes and all....

    1. Thank you so much Tim for your response. I really appreciate it. Why didnt I notice Norman up front in his special robes? All I can say is that love is blind. I wrote a follow up blog to this, which I invite you to read.

  2. I have noticed all along, and been troubled by it. Still, I go on because where else is one going to have access to these teachings, and from such a gifted teacher? The way Norman carries the hierarchy certainly makes it much less noticeable, I think. At Green Gulch, I felt it a lot more. I'm very much in this question with you--as an ecofeminist, how can I practice in a hierarchy, when the very structure lends itself to abuse? But maybe any structure will do that, even a collaboratively co-created one. I wonder if I will ever find resolution at this point--or if I'll just go along with it until it becomes too much to bear, or I acquiesce. And then there are the "change it from within" arguments--which are compelling, but so often it seems to me the role sort of creates the person. It's an important question--one we should perhaps be tangling with in a much more conscious way--which your blog does. So, thank you!

    1. I requested dokusan with norman about this, but he warned he could only listen with an open heart. Which was what he did. I did tell him that I think things will change...we Americans (and Canadians, etc) are egalitarian. I told him he has an important voice in American Zen, but that things may change later, after we die. I AM having dinner tonight with Martha de Barros and Sue Moon who very much sympathize with this issue. I think the role of lay practitioners, and the lay entrusted, may gradually take the foreground...esp for thousands of us who do not practice in a monastery!

  3. As an outsider, but a real admirer of zen buddhism, I think it's completely your problem. I mean there are those countless stories of enlightenment during the most mundane kinds of activity like cleaning the toilet or simply walking on the street. So I think, as a zen practitioner these matters like who gets what, who wears which color of robe, and who is equal to whom in the zen community should be totally irrelevant to you.
    As a woman who feels inequality, you have every right to be motivated to reform this community. However, I think it hinders you as a zen practitioner.

  4. Bailint,

    Nothing in this phenomenal world can hinder a zen practitioner. "Our" problems are the meat of our practice, the very truth of dukka. What should be irrelevant to you is your mind; to me, mine.

    Every time you strike with a hammer, you only hit emptiness.

    Dharma Sister,

    Keep rocking the boat.